ROME: Russian President Vladimir Putin was "pushed" into invading Ukraine and wanted to put "decent people" in charge of Kyiv, former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi has said, drawing fierce criticism just ahead of Italy's election.
The Italian leader, whose Forza Italia party belongs to a right-wing coalition expected to win Sunday's parliamentary election on Sunday (Sep 25), is a long-time friend of Putin and his comments are likely to alarm Western allies.
"Putin was pushed by the Russian people, by his party, by his ministers to come up with this special operation," Berlusconi told Italian public television RAI late on Thursday, using the official Russian wording for the war.
Russia's plan was originally to conquer Kyiv "in a week", and replace the democratically elected Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskiy with "a government of decent people" and get out "in another week", he said.
"I haven't even understood why Russian troops spread around Ukraine while in my mind they should have only stuck around Kyiv," said the 85-year-old Berlusconi, who once described Putin as being like a younger brother.
Putin's stated war aims have varied during the seven-month war. Ukraine initially chased his troops from the Kyiv area, and more recently from parts of the northeast near the Russia border. Putin now says the main aim is to secure territory in the Donbas region partly controlled by pro-Russia separatists.
Facing widespread condemnation from opponents, Berlusconi released a statement on Friday saying his views had been "oversimplified".
"The aggression against Ukraine is unjustifiable and unacceptable, (Forza Italia's) position is clear. We will always be with the EU and NATO," he said.
The leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, Enrico Letta, described Berlusconi's comments on the war as "scandalous".
"If on Sunday night the result is favourable to the right, the happiest person would be Putin," Letta told RAI radio.
Centrist leader Carlo Calenda, another election contender, said on Radio24 said Berlusconi had spoken "like a Putin general".
Asked about Berlusconi's comments, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said he believed the former Italian premier liked "to take the side of the winners, and this is definitely not Russia and not Putin".
"I believe the Italian people, and specifically Mr. Berlusconi, are quite pragmatic and...